In State v. Cornelius C. Cohen (A-50-21/084493) (Decided June 22, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the odor of marijuana in a vehicle did not authorizes a search of the engine compartment and trunk under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
Facts of State v. Cohen
After receiving a tip from a confidential informant that defendant Cornelius Cohen regularly traveled out of state to acquire firearms for subsequent sale in New Jersey, the New Jersey State Police issued a “be on the lookout” notice for two vehicles defendant was known to use. After spotting one of the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, State Trooper Charles Travis followed the vehicle for a few miles before initiating a traffic stop for failure to maintain the lane and a suspected toll violation.
During the stop, Trooper Travis detected the smell of raw marijuana while speaking with defendant at the window of the vehicle. After searching the passenger compartment and finding no marijuana, the trooper continued his search by opening the hood of the car. He discovered a rifle and a revolver nestled in the vehicle’s engine compartment. Trooper Travis then opened the trunk and found a bag containing hollow point bullets. Despite Trooper Travis’s detection of the odor of marijuana, no marijuana was found.
Defendant moved to suppress the items seized during the warrantless search and the trial court denied his motion. Thereafter, defendant pled guilty to one count of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s conviction and sentence, finding no error in the trial court’s admission of the evidence seized from the engine compartment and trunk.
NJ Supreme Court Decision in State v. Cohen
The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed, holding that the seized evidence should be suppressed. According to the court, expanding the search to the engine compartment and trunk went beyond the scope of the automobile exception. Although the trooper smelled marijuana in the passenger compartment of the car, his initial search yielded no results and provided no justification “to extend the zone of the . . . search further than the persons of the occupants or the interior of the car.” State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1, 14-15 (1980). Accordingly, the seized evidence should be suppressed.
In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledged that New Jersey courts have recognized that the smell of marijuana constitutes probable cause that a criminal offense has been committed and additional contraband might be present. However, it also emphasized that a search that is reasonable at its inception may nonetheless violate the Constitution by virtue of its “intolerable intensity and scope.”
After reviewing several cases involving searches under the automobile exception based on the suspected presence of marijuana, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that cases in which New Jersey courts have upheld searches of areas beyond the passenger compartment have involved facts beyond simply detecting the smell of marijuana from the interior of the car.
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to find that the initial search of defendant and the passenger compartment was valid. However, because the search of the car’s interior did not reveal marijuana, it concluded that the expansion went beyond the scope of the automobile exception, and any information from the BOLO could not contribute to a probable cause determination based on the smell of marijuana.
“We hold that when Trooper Travis expanded his search to the engine compartment of the car, he went beyond the scope of the automobile exception. Although he smelled marijuana in the passenger compartment of the car, the trooper’s initial search yielded no results and provided no justification ‘to extend the zone of the . . . search further than the persons of the occupants or the interior of the car,’” the court wrote. “Had the smell of raw marijuana emanated from under the hood of the vehicle, that could have justified expanding the search.”
Finally, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that its holding in no way suggests that areas within the interior of the car would require separate probable cause findings in order to conduct a warrantless search. “We are not dividing up the interior of vehicles such that an officer would need to establish different or additional probable cause to search front seat as opposed to the back seat, for example,” the court explained. “Pursuant to the automobile exception, if an officer has probable cause to search the interior of the vehicle, that probable cause encompasses the entirety of the interior.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court similarly noted that it was not suggesting that the warrantless search of a trunk or engine compartment will always require separate probable cause findings. “Instead, we reiterate that a warrantless search of a car ‘must be reasonable in scope’ and ‘strictly tied to and justified by the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible,’” the court wrote. “However, a generalized smell of raw marijuana does not justify a search of every compartment of an automobile.”